General Convention 2018
Sunday reflection presented by Chicago delegate Sandi McPhee - July 22, 2018
Ephesians 2:11-22 | Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
When I first read the Gospel lesson for today, I laughed out loud. I loved the description of Jesus and the disciples having “no leisure even to eat,” and desperate to get away for a bit of R and R. This is just like the Episcopal Church’s every three year Convention. We spend almost two weeks together and then everyone just wants to get home for a bit of peace and quiet.
General Convention, also known as “my big fat Anglican family reunion,” was held in Austin, Texas, for the first two weeks in July. And yes, it is always someplace hot and usually over the 4th of July. General Convention is all about legislation. Remember that the US government includes the House of Representatives and the Senate. General Convention includes the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops.
Each Diocese of the Episcopal Church, and there are 109 dioceses in 16 countries, is entitled to send 4 lay deputies and 4 clergy deputies to Convention. Every bishop, even those who are retired, is a member of the House of Bishops. Each resolution of the General Convention must pass in both houses.
The first few days of convention are taken up with legislative committee hearings. Every resolution, and there were 502 submitted this year, must be reviewed by the appropriate legislative committee. Hearings usually begin at 7:30 am and anyone, not just deputies and bishops, may testify in favor of or against proposed resolutions. The legislative committees combine, rewrite and reject resolutions. Most of the resolutions that pass through the committees are put on the “consent calendar” and voted on in a block.
The actual legislative sessions are run in a very formal and dignified way - deputies are recognized by name and diocese and there are time limits for total debate on every resolution. All those who wish to speak are not always able to do so.
Two great technological improvements since the “olden days” are the use of virtual binders and voting machines. For decades, every deputy received a huge 3 ring binder on arriving at Convention. Since 2015, every deputy is issued an iPad on arrival and all documents and revisions are distributed through the iPads. While most matters are decided by a simple voice vote, when accurate totals are required, or when the voice vote is close, the machines are fast and effective.
So, what did we vote on? Many of the resolutions are truly “inside baseball” - changes to the Constitution and Canons, modifying Rules of Order, and adopting a 3 year budget. Then there are what I call the “don’t be mean” resolutions - support for families separated at the border, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and resolutions to improve language translations and provide proper support for hearing impaired, blind, and other differently abled members of the Convention and the church.
I would like to focus on three resolutions which have received a lot of press, and are likely to have the biggest impact on the life of the Episcopal Church.
The first is prayer book revision. The Deputies passed a resolution to begin the process of revising the 1979 prayer book. Before that, we had the 1928 book, which I, and I suspect many of you, grew up with.
I was moved by the testimonies, particularly of younger clergy and lay women, those who identify as LGBT, and those from both domestic and Latin American dioceses, that the gendered, male dominant language of the prayer book does not reflect them or their inclusion in the life of the church. And there were many who spoke powerfully of the unifying qualities of the 1979 book and the disruption that a new version could cause. Those of us who grew up with the 1928 prayer book and lived through “prayer book revision” in the 1970’s remember those same arguments.
So, what did Convention do with this? The solution was elegant, and typically, Anglican. After the Deputies passed a resolution calling for a complete revision of the prayer book with a price tag of well over one million dollars, the bishops said “wait a minute,” and amended the resolution that the Deputies had passed. The amended resolution encourages the use and development of liturgical resources and services to meet the needs of diverse congregations and groups, and that amended resolution was then passed by the Deputies.
One thing that everyone is pretty clear about, is that there likely will never be another BOOK. As technology develops, we will have more downloadable, on-line resources that a parish can easily use to create its own “book,” much as we do at St. Matthew’s.
Another resolution which was modified into a generally satisfactory compromise deals with the right of a parish priest to perform a same gender marriage in his or her parish. In 2015, Convention authorized the trial use of marriage rites for same gender marriages, however, diocesan bishops were given the right to limit or prohibit same gender marriages in their dioceses.
At this time, 8 bishops prohibit the priests in their dioceses from performing same gender marriages and most of the 8 also prohibit priests from performing such marriages in another diocese. After a great deal of negotiation and compromise, we passed a resolution that states that the rector is the primary decision maker as to what services will be performed in a parish and allows priests, even those with bishops who disagree, to perform same gender marriages. However, if a bishop’s theology and conscience cannot allow that, he or she must promptly name another bishop to take oversight of that parish to work with the priest and congregation to facilitate same gender marriages.
The most celebratory moments of Convention were when, first the House of Bishops and then, the House of Deputies, voted to readmit the Diocese of Cuba to the Episcopal Church and seated Bishop Griselda Delgado in the House of Bishops and their deputies in the House of Deputies. The Diocese of Cuba was a missionary diocese started in 1871, but in 1966, because of the Cuban revolution, the House of Bishops evicted Cuba from the church. For the past 52 years, they have longed to come home, and now they have!
General Convention is not just sitting in a large convention hall and passing resolutions. There are lots of parties! I had a great time at all that I attended, but I want to note that we were in Texas, and if I don’t eat any tex-mex food in the near future, I will probably be just fine.
There is also a large exhibit hall with all sorts of Episcopal bling on sale and booths where various organizations can tout their good works.
There were three significant, non-legislative events that I want to mention. The first was a revival held on Saturday, the 7th, in the evening. It went on for 2 and a half hours, and Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, preached one os his famous stem-winder sermons. The entire event, attended by thousands, put the rest the idea of Episcopalians as God’s “frozen chosen.”
The next two events took place on Sunday, the 8th. Bishops Against Gun Violence, of which our own bishop, Jeff Lee, is a founding member, held a rally in a park right next to the convention center. The bishops, were all dressed in rochet and chimere (that’s the long white dress with the long red vest). Hundreds of people prayed and gave witness to the tragedy of gun violence, particularly in our cities.
Immediately after that event, over a thousand people boarded busses and traveled about 45 minutes to the Hutto Detention Center to protest the administration’s immigration policies. Again, Bishop Curry gave a powerful sermon and everyone prayed and sang. All of the prisoners at Hutto are women. A few brave souls, frustrated because the official gathering area was far from the prison, walked along a public road to get closer, being careful not to trespass on prison property. The windows are just slits in the wall and through the narrow glass, one could see white shapes moving up and down. The women were waving anything white that they had - a T-shirt, a piece of paper - to let us know that they saw us and knew we were there. We later heard from someone inside the prison, that the women stayed at the windows and watched until the last bus drove out of sight.
So, where is God in all of this? The reading from Ephesians emphasizes that Jesus Christ has brought everyone together and has broken down the walls that divide us. We are no longer strangers and aliens but members of the household of God. As Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Cape Town, has said on many occasions, “all means all”.
Many long time convention goers, myself included, said that this was the most mellow, most gentle convention that we could remember. The biggest issues were settled with compromises.
Perhaps it is the message preached by Bishop Curry, who says, “if it is not about Love it is not about Jesus.” His message of love and acceptance permeated the Convention and gave us all something to bring home Bishop Curry tells us to “go,” to “go out into the world and be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.” That is the underlying message of General Convention 2018, that we are all directed to “go and serve the Lord.”